Last U.S. criminal lawyer practicing in Germany has represented thousands of servicemembers
July 16, 2007
Whether accused of drug- smuggling or desertion, assault, rape or cutting off a man’s head in front of a mess hall full of people, U.S. troops in Germany have two local options.
They can go with a military defense lawyer, provided free of charge. Or they can hire David Court.
Court, 60, tall, bearded and impeccably pin- striped, is the sole American civilian criminal lawyer who remains practicing in Germany. All the others — there were once a dozen or so — have either “gone home, quit or died,” Court says.
Married to a German art historian and translator, and enjoying the German lifestyle — “I like not having to look over my shoulder at the ATM,” he said — Court has maintained a Frankfurt-based practice for more than 30 years and now has a niche all to himself, even as the numbers of troops dwindle.
“I used to do 50 to 70 courts-martial a year,” he said. “That’s dropped a little. But I’m still involved in 40 to 50 cases per year.”
Do the math. Court has represented several thousand U.S. servicemembers accused of crimes under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice — far more than most judge advocates will ever see — and is indisputably an expert in its complexities. Yet, unlike many defense lawyers who work at courts-martial in the U.S., he was never in the military.
“I never had the pleasure of serving,” he said in a recent interview at Campbell Barracks food court. “If you want to comment that I said that with a straight face, that’s up to you.”
Court has represented some of U.S. Army Europe’s most notorious defendants, including Army Sgt. Steven Schap, who was convicted in 1994 of murdering his wife’s boyfriend, decapitating the man in front of a mess hall window as scores looked on, then bringing the severed head to his wife’s hospital bedside.
“He got 43 years [in prison],” Lt. Col. Mike Mulligan, who prosecuted the case, recalled, although sentencing guidelines called for a mandatory life sentence. But Court, arguing that Schap had acted in the heat of passion after being betrayed by both his wife and her lover, his former friend, persuaded the commanding general to give clemency.
“For Mr. Court, that was a victory,” said Mulligan, outgoing staff judge advocate for the 7th Army Joint Multi-National Training Command.
Mulligan has known Court for decades and said he considers him a friend and a worthy adversary. “When a soldier finds himself in trouble, there are people worth the money and people who aren’t,” he said. “Mr. Court is worth the money.
“He’s had great success, unfortunately for me, with negligent homicide cases,” Mulligan said.
Mulligan said Court’s fluency in German helps in the courtroom when German investigators and experts testify. Not only is he 90 seconds ahead — he doesn’t need to wait for the translation — but he also knows most of the German expert witnesses after so many years.
“He knows their weaknesses,” Mulligan said, and is able to exploit their discomfort with the American adversarial trial system, so different from the German system they’re most familiar with.
Agustin Aguayo, the former Army medic who made international headlines last year when he was convicted of desertion and missing movement for fleeing his Schweinfurt unit before his second deployment to Iraq — and after he was denied conscientious objector status — said he was happy with Court’s work.
Aguayo served more than six months’ confinement, but it might have been more.
“The very first time I spoke to him, I could tell … he’s mastered the art of persuasion,” Aguayo said.
Most of Court’s cases never make the news. The public was unaware, for instance, when Air Force Master Sgt. Cliff Abner was accused in 2001 of attempted rape by a 16-year-old who he said had been one of his girlfriends and accused him after he spurned her. His military lawyer “didn’t seem too interested in my situation,” he said, so he hired Court.
The six months he stood accused — before charges were dropped after his Article 32 hearing — would have been unbearable without Court’s counsel, said Abner, now 46, retired and living in Phoenix.
“It was just terrifying. I couldn’t eat. I wanted to just die. People look at you totally different, from the commander on down,” he said. “But Mr. Court saw me through it. During the 32, he shot down everything, and he was just beautiful.”
Court’s decades of experience are often in contrast to both the military prosecutors who sit across the aisle in the courtroom, and the military defense lawyer, who usually sits by Court’s side, helping with the case.
Military defense lawyers are in a separate chain of command, reporting to Washington, D.C., not local commanders.
“They’re all competent and zealous,” said Maj. Janine Felsman, senior defense counsel for the Trial Defense Service office in Mannheim.
“But some people are made for the courtroom, and some people aren’t. Trial litigation is part experience and know-how and part confidence, and he has all that,” she said.
Court, though unstuffy and collegial, is well aware that his reputation precedes him. “I’m told I’m a rite of passage for young trial counsel,” he said.